War Horse 2020

Lt. Col Patrick Williams MC, RHG/D

Lieutenant Colonel Patrick Williams MC RHG/D is a Commanding Officer of The Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment

“There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.”

This quote is popularly attributed to Rt Hon Sir Winston Churchill, former Cavalryman, adventurer and latterly British Prime Minister. But these are in fact the words of a similarly multitalented pioneer of his time John Lubbock, 1st Baron Avebury, in his 1894 book The Use of Life. Many of us have seen or experienced the passion, devotion and expenditure that our equid friends demand in the civilian world, but what of horses in the Army? Why do we still have them and what do they do for our soldiers that work with them? Why is a horse good for a man?

Hidden away on the southern edge of Hyde Park in London, behind Sir Basil Spence’s brutalist and unwelcoming architecture, are stabled 250 horses of the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment. The Regiment’s role since its formation in 1661 has been the protection of the Monarch.This is a role it still fulfils today, escorting Her Majesty The Queen’s carriage on National occasions, the massed use of horses able to act as a shield for Her Majesty, should the situation require it. The Regiment also fulfil daily duties of The Queen Life Guard – providing sentries mounted on horses or on foot to stand guard – at Horseguards, next door to Downing Street on Whitehall. A nod to our past and an element of how those outside our Nation see us.

But what possible relevance could this role have in 2020? Surely men and women on horseback in outdated uniforms is a look back to an Arcadian world that never really existed. Beyond horses, the men and women of the Household Cavalry are also trained as armoured reconnaissance soldiers to be the covert eyes and ears of commanders on today’s battlefield. What marks them out from their peers in the rest of the Army is that for every Household Cavalry soldier their military journey started by teaming up with a horse.

What is quite extraordinary is that more than 60% of soldiers joining the Regiment have never sat on a horse before and even the few that have struggle to adapt to the military riding style. And yet, in just 20 weeks it is possible to teach a soldier who has never seen a horse before to ride on parade in front of Her Majesty The Queen and 8,000 spectators.

During their training, the soldiers gain remarkable riding proficiency: riding one-handed, with huge thick boots, wearing a helmet that is difficult to see out from and carrying a sword. But the real change in these young soldiers comes from their interaction with the horses. The responsibility to look after a living, breathing, sentient being; having to feed it, groom it, muck it out and ride it develops the soldier into something special. Through their relationship with a horse and the unique way horses and humans communicate with one another, my soldiers become highly attuned to physical movements, developing an instinct and an awareness for the slightest changes in situation, something which lasts a lifetime.

In training, soldiers spend almost every waking moment around the horse they are paired up with. It is the strength of this bond that helps to explain the incredible progress soldiers make in learning to ride. But once they have completed the riding course, they will be expected to know up to 30 horses and may be called upon to ride any one of them.With the constant interaction, the occasional kick or friendly (or not so friendly) bite, the soldiers soon understand that each horse has its own personality. Each has a name and number, from which you can tell its age and the year it joined the army, like a birth certificate. But my soldiers know each horse’s character as they know each other; whether it is social or shy, fearful or boisterous, and can tell within moments its mood on any particular day. As such, each interaction with every horse is subconsciously assessed and approached differently.

Michael Morpurgo captured this sentiment beautifully in his book War Horse:

“Can you not see that he’s something special? This one isn’t just any old horse. There’s a nobility in his eye, a regal serenity about him. Does he not personify all that men try to be and never can be?”

The legends of these horses take on anthropomorphic tones and quite often the most boisterous horses are those remembered with the greatest fondness. Our horses are named alphabetically year on year. This year all of our newly trained horses’ names will begin with the letter ’U’. Often horses will live up to their name. Neptune loves swimming, Javelin and Nitro are exceptionally fast and Quasimodo kicks at his stable door until he is fed or paid some attention.

Horses’ names are also reused. Our most famous horse, Sefton, was badly injured in a terrorist attack in London in 1982. He survived terrible wounds and won the hearts of the Nation for his bravery and determination. Today we have Sefton III and one of the first soldiers to ride him on a parade was Trooper Sullivan whose father narrowly avoided serious injury in the 1982 attack. Sefton is a favourite with many soldiers, but like his namesake before him, he still likes to give an occasional kick or bite to keep them on their toes.

However, the daily monotony of guard duty, the hours spent cleaning kit and looking after horses, with little prospect of time off, can take the enjoyment out of riding. But each summer the Regiment usually get the opportunity to take the soldiers and horses to the Norfolk countryside. Here we get the chance to improve our riding skills, taking part in the fun activities for which most people take up riding: show jumping, cross country, beach rides and even just a quiet hack out to the local pub. It is here that the interaction and bond between the soldier and horse is best seen. In a relaxed environment away from the pressures of ceremonial duty, both soldiers and horses can have some fun and challenge themselves. I will never tire of seeing new recruits riding their horses bareback into the sea for the first time, more often than not, white with fear. But, after 10 minutes swimming alongside their horses, they come back to the beach with beaming smiles and brimming confidence.The same is true of a long exhilarating gallop along the seemingly endless Holkham beach. Not only do these experiences reinforce the connection between soldier and horse, but it boosts the confidence of young men and women in a way few other experiences can.

Whether a soldier enjoys their time at the Mounted Regiment and develops a passion for riding or not, they will always have a favourite horse or horses etched into their memory. Each can recount tales about why a horse was so good or bad or the funny things they did. In fact, the bonds can be so strong that we keep a list of applications from soldiers who have asked for the opportunity to buy a particular horse when it retires.

What they have learned while at the Mounted Regiment and through their bond with horses is courage, grit, devotion, consideration, patience, respect and teamwork. All these qualities are essential when they are asked to put their lives in danger on the battlefield away from the parade squares of London. Today the skill, élan, and dash of the Cavalry Brigades that fought at Waterloo is alive today with the Household Cavalry, in large part due to our continued partnership with the horse. Long may it continue.